Anger-A friend or foe?

Gaurav, 28, is a software engineer working in a well-known company in Bangalore. He is single and has had some unhappy experiences in his romantic relationships. Gaurav tends to lose his temper frequently and takes it out on his partner, friends, colleagues or family members. Whenever he is frustrated at work or hurt in a relationship, he becomes angry. Over a period of time, those around him have become wary of his outbursts and have started to keep their distance from him. Every time Gaurav loses his temper and screams at someone, he feels guilty soon after and beats himself up because he can’t control his anger better.

Swetha, 21, is a college student, who is quite popular and has lots of friends. She is known to be very accommodating and helpful. She never pushes her opinion too much and goes along with what others want. But at home, she is like a completely different person. She is very quiet, often feels unhappy or angry with herself. She thinks that she is weak because she doesn’t stand up for her opinions or her desires. She has begun to hate herself and has started to show signs of depression.

Gaurav and Swetha seem like very different people. One seems well-adjusted to her surroundings, has many friends and is on the surface, quite happy. The other is obviously having problems in most of his relationships and has little control over his temper. However, what the two do have in common is anger. Gaurav’s anger is turned outwards, directed at the people closest to him and Swetha turns her anger inwards, on herself.  Sigmund Freud, a famous psychiatrist, says that depression is nothing but anger turned inwards. What Gaurav and Swetha also have in common is that they are expressing their anger inappropriately.

First and most important for us to understand, anger is a natural and healthy emotion. We feel angry when someone or something has deliberately offended or wronged us. In evolutionary terms, anger is our instinctive reaction to being threatened by a predator. It is part of our fight-or-flight response when we are faced with something which scares us. It helps us protect ourselves and stand up for ourselves. Anger becomes a problem only when it is expressed inappropriately.

How is our way of expressing anger learnt?

Often, we learn how to express our anger by imitating the way in which our family, relatives or friends express anger. That is, we engage in ‘social learning’ as Albert Bandura calls it. We might observe that people expressing anger aggressively are getting their way in many situations. So, we learn to do the same. Or we see that in our family, showing our anger overtly is considered disrespectful, so we learn to swallow it and keep it to ourselves. If we have been victims of someone’s anger, we try to take revenge by doing the same to others. Sometimes, our anger towards one person or one group of people extends to include all similar people or groups. Example: Aditya hate all popular people because a popular girl in school used to make fun of him.

Types of anger:

Anger might be expressed passively or aggressively. Some of us, when we are angry with someone, will grumble to ourselves, gossip about the object of our anger to others, just avoid conflict, manipulate or provoke others to do what we can’t do, pretend to be indifferent or blame ourselves excessively. These are all passive ways of expressing anger which do not require direct confrontation. On the other hand, some of us can get violent, indulge in verbal abuse, bully others, become bent on taking revenge, say and do hurtful things, unjustly blame others or just behave in a selfish manner, ignoring others’ needs as long as our own are satisfied. These are some aggressive ways of anger expression.

In India, our culture demands that we always be respectful to our elders and others. Overt displays of anger are not appreciated. In fact, people will avoid or skirt around an issue which causes anger and tend to distance themselves from people who express their anger in a direct, confrontational way. If we are angry with our parents, we cannot always sit down and talk to them about it. We are not supposed to raise our voices at them (though I’m sure we have all done so in some situations!). Mostly, our anger is just not acknowledged and if it is, it is ignored. So, we learn to show it in passive ways. You disobey your mother when you know she isn’t around to check on you. You slam the door and put the music on loud or simply pretend you can’t hear what your parents are saying. Now, repeated use of such passive techniques becomes a habit. We often carry these habits into our adult relationships which result in many miscommunications and misunderstandings. If our anger is uncontrolled, our relationships are damaged and we begin to become isolated and lonely.

Anger has an immediate effect on your body. Your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate increase, more blood flows to your extremities and hormones like adrenaline and noradrenalin are released as your body gets ready for a fight. Getting angry frequently and staying angry means that your body remains in this tense, expectant state over a long period of time. Eventually, it begins to wear on your body. If anger is either bottled up or released in an uncontrolled manner, your health is badly affected. Ulcers, stomach problems, heart problems and even cancer have been linked to living in a hostile, angry state.

Anger, Pain and Depression:

Anger is often used in place of pain. When you are hurt (physically or emotionally), it is easier to become angry about it than to show your vulnerability. Over time, we start turning to anger as a substitute emotion for pain. Also, being angry makes you feel more in control. You can distract yourself from the pain by feeling righteous in your anger and indignation against someone or something. Sometimes, the anger turned inwards becomes depression. You choose to blame yourself for anything that has gone wrong like Swetha in the example above or deny your responsibility in everything. You might tell yourself ‘I am not good enough, I am unlucky, I am unworthy or weak’ and engage in self-destructive behavior as a way to avoid dealing with the anger. You stop taking care of yourself – your weight, your eating habits, exercise, your relationships, studies or work.

As we can see, inappropriate expression of anger is destructive in many ways. To learn how to cope with our anger, it helps if we can first understand where it stems from. Is it really anger or some other emotion which is hidden by anger? If we become aware of how we express anger, we can understand its consequences on our lives. Techniques of anger management are available and can be accessed through books, on the internet or through helping professionals. If you are someone who has an anger problem or is a victim of another’s anger, reading this article might be a starting point of your journey to help deal with it. Contact us at Talkitover for further information or counselling.

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.